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Scoring a triumph for intelligence and versatility over raw ball-striking, these European stylists ousted the towering American duo of Querrey and Isner en route to their quarterfinal collision. Although the two-handed backhand may comprise a sturdier, more reliable weapon in the modern game, it’s a pleasure to watch a pair of one-handers showcase their graceful strokes.  An imaginative all-court artisan, Youzhny reached the US Open semifinals in 2006 after defeating a youthful Nadal.  Despite his lack of a dominant serve, the Russian can create depth and pace on both groundstroke wings, which has benefited him this fortnight as much as his crisp footwork.  More comfortable at the net than Wawrinka, he should exploit this advantage by gliding forwards when an especially penetrating groundstroke thrusts his opponent off balance.  On the other hand, the Swiss #2 possesses greater first-strike power, a more intimidating serve, and superior fitness, factors that might play a role if the match extends deep into the New York afternoon.  During their victories over the American mastodons, both European players displayed a few tremors of nerves just as the match lay on the verge of sliding irrevocably into their grasp.  Leading by a set and 5-1 against Isner, Youzhny somehow found a way to lose five straight games and ultimately the second set, allowing his foe to regroup and temporarily claw his way into the match.  Much the same scenario unfolded for Wawrinka a round later, when he squandered set point after set point while serving for a two-set lead that would have permanently deflated Querrey.  Denied those opportunities, he unraveled perceptibly albeit briefly and thus extended his exertions that day much longer than necessary.  Buoying the Swiss, however, is his electrifying, comprehensive win over title contender Murray in a match that revealed far greater poise under pressure than he demonstrated Querrey .  Both players have lived most of their careers far from the limelight, reaching just a single Slam semifinal between them (Youzhny’s aforementioned achievement).  Will the momentum from Wawrinka’s improbable run take him to hitherto unexplored heights, or will Youzhny channel the magic that brought him within two wins of a major title four years ago?  Although neither the Swiss nor the Russian enters serious ambitions of capturing the 2010 US Open, their exploits in New York have restored them to relevance and constructed a foundation upon which they can build in 2011.

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Just seven Slams ago, Spain’s two foremost lefties engaged in one of the most thrilling five-set matches outside the context of the Federer-Nadal rivalry.  Ending anticlimactically in a double fault, that Melbourne marathon coupled the tenacity from Nadal that we have come to expect with an unexpectedly gritty effort from Verdasco, who rallied from a two-sets-to-one deficit to charge within six points of the Australian Open final.  Since then, however, Rafa has reasserted the balance of power in the non-rivalry with his compatriot by smothering him in three clay meetings.  Seizing only one set from the world #1 outside that memorable collision in Melbourne, Verdasco typically has slammed his way out of their matches with reckless, mindless abandon that sometimes suggested an undercurrent of fatalistic despair.  Shot for shot, no area of his game except the serve ever was superior to its counterpart in Nadal’s game, including the formidable forehand that misfired at key moments in their previous ten clashes.  Note the was in the previous sentence, for now even Rafa’s serve has ascended to a level unequalled by Fernando at his best; on the same night that the world #1 extended his streak of consecutive holds to 61, the second-best Spanish lefty mingled 11 double faults with his 90 unforced errors during a victory as unsightly as it was suspenseful.  Yet Soderling’s 0-12 record against Federer dissolved in stunning fashion at Roland Garros this year, so Verdasco’s 0-10 against Nadal could conclude just as magnificently.  Central to the difference between those situations, however, is the divergence between the personalities of the Swede and the Spaniard.  Slipping gleefully into the spoiler’s role, Soderling appeared to derive intense satisfaction specifically from dashing the title hopes of those above him in the tennis hierarchy.  By contrast, the gentle Verdasco seems content with his status midway down the pyramid and generally displays deference to his superiors.  A second straight quarterfinal in New York should satisfy his modest ambitions unless Nadal evinces any uncharacteristic early frailty.  With a coveted career Slam (and career Golden Slam) just three wins away, the five-time Roland Garros champion should bring his keenest focus to the challenge before him.

***

The top three women’s seeds all have marched into the semifinals; will the top three men’s seeds join them there?

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