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Invisible during the first week of this blog, the world #1 and top seed finally makes his “Bright Lights, Big City” debut on the eve of a night encounter with the only player who defeated him between April and July.  Vanquishing Rafa at Queens Club, Lopez narrowly evaded an early demise at the hands of a French qualifier in the second round but has shone under the lights here in the past.  Three years ago, the third-best Spanish lefty shocked the New York crowd by audaciously outplaying Federer for a set and a half before the GOAT finally punished him for his impudence.  Often relying upon retro serve-volley tactics, Lopez will seek to jolt Rafa out of his baseline rhythm and capitalize upon any shallow returns.  Mortal in the first two rounds against a pair of Russian juggernauts, Nadal appeared more comfortable on his least favorite surface in his victory over Simon.  He has played just one complete match against Lopez on this surface, prevailing in straight sets at their home Masters 1000 event in Madrid.  Addressing the primary flaw in his intimidating arsenal, the world #1 cracked some of the most percussive serves of his career and has reached the second week without being broken.  Moreover, the flat backhands that deserted him in his hard-court losses this summer has been finding its range more consistently.  A far steadier opponent than Lopez, Nadal will enjoy a significant advantage in any rallies longer than four or five shots, so he simply needs to survive the first few blows in their exchanges.  If Feliciano enjoys an exceptional serving day, he might eke out a set and pound his way into a tiebreak or two, but it’s hard to imagine him winning three sets from Rafa under ordinary conditions at a tournament of consequence.

Ferrer vs. Verdasco

Are we in New York or Paris?  Meeting for the third time in 2010, these two clay-loving Spaniards have faced each other ten times but only once away from their favored dirt.  Yet one should note that both Ferrer and Verdasco have reached quarterfinals at the US Open, David three years ago and Fernando last year.  Translating effectively to all surfaces, Ferrer’s splendid movement, fitness, and willpower even carried him past an ailing Nadal in New York en route to the 2007 semifinals.  On the other hand, he skirted baseline behemoth Gulbis during the first week in addition to hard-court nemesis Chardy.  Much more perilous was Verdasco’s route to this Tuesday appointment, which featured a tense opening collision with Fognini and a sturdy four-set victory over Nalbandian.  A few months removed from his hectic clay season, has Fernando finally rediscovered his energy and motivation?  Although he hasn’t fulfilled the promise that he displayed during the 2009 Australian Open, he can produce blinding winners from anywhere on the court and possesses much more first-strike potential than his compatriot.  Ferrer’s advantage rests in his superior consistency, court coverage, and mental tenacity, an arena in which Verdasco has struggled notoriously throughout his career.  On a fast court, his indifferent serve and lack of offensive weaponry may prove insurmountable shortcomings against a player who possesses both of them.  While Ferrer relishes his inside-out forehand, he may prefer to stroke that shot crosscourt in order to expose Verdasco’s backhand rather than targeting his compatriot’s might lefty forehand.  Since Fernando can’t target any particular weaknesses in David’s baseline game, he won’t want to engage in a war of attrition.  Instead, Verdasco should attempt to take command of the rallies as soon as possible and stretch Ferrer laterally with acutely angled groundstrokes.

Schiavone vs. Venus

Reprising a Melbourne clash with Venus, Schiavone hopes to fluster the elder Williams by varying the slices and spins on her artistic gambits.  In both Australia and Madrid, the Roland Garros champion won a set from the two-time US Open champion with intelligent placement and electrifying movement, only to fizzle in the next two sets as the vast gulf in their relative ball-striking power yawned.  In order to score her first career win over the American, Schiavone must remind herself to avoid slipping into the baseline slugging match as she unwisely did in Australia; perhaps reveling in her lead a little too much, she forgot what had established the lead in the first place.  Despite a tranquil first-week draw, Venus faltered on serve and committed more forehand errors than she can afford to donate against the stingy Italian.  Although her level rose a bit a round ago against Peer, erratic patches allowed the Israeli to stay within range longer than she typically does in her numerous meetings with the American.  Aware that Venus typically thrives on high-speed baseline exchanges, Schiavone must ensure that the third seed creates all of her own pace.  Dragging earlier opponents out of their comfort zones by exploiting the forecourt, she should think twice before luring the net-savvy American forwards.  A more profitable tactic might be to hit deep, looping balls down the center of the court, forcing Venus to construct low-percentage angles and testing her ever-suspect timing.  Unless Schiavone serves at a high percentage and hits consistently penetrating groundstrokes, Serena’s sister should forestall the evolution of extended rallies with ferocious serves and returns, not permitting her opponent the time to craft her clever combinations.

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Stosur vs. Clijsters

The clear co-favorite with Wozniacki, Clijsters has plowed through her first eight sets with the loss of just fourteen games.  Clearly, the pressure of defending the first major title of her comeback has not distracted the Belgian, who rides a 15-match winning streak in the US and an 18-match winning streak at the US Open (including 2003 and 2005 titles).  On the other hand, Stosur never had won consecutive matches in New York before this year, struggling to adapt her asymmetrical groundstrokes to the slick surface.  But the resurgent Aussie dazzled under the lights in her fourth-round victory over Dementieva, admittedly recovering from injury yet still one of her generation’s premier hard-court threats.  Saving multiple match points against the Russian, Stosur displayed greater confidence with her backhand and fearless aggression with her underrated forehand.  The best server in the WTA outside Serena, she will feel free to take risks on her returns in the knowledge that she can hold with ease on most occasions.  Or will she?  During a mid-match lull against Dementieva, Stosur dropped several service games in a row, and the rest of her game descended with her best shot.  Moreover, she hasn’t won a set in three previous meetings with Clijsters and has reached 5-5 in only one set.  Gifted with superb weapons on both groundstroke wings, the defending champion transitions swiftly from defense to offense.  Clijsters will hope to rely upon her counterpunching skills to withstand the Australian’s powerful forehand before breaking down her opponent’s backhand and movement.  Since both players are susceptible to absurdly flat patches of play even at their best, one wouldn’t be surprised to see a few peaks and valleys as the match progresses.

***

As the quarterfinals begin, keep your eyes on the ball to catch all of the intensifying action…

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