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Despite the demands posed by his least favorite surface, Nadal may never have a better opportunity to escape the only major that has eluded him.  Not required to navigate past mighty juggernauts Soderling, Del Potro, and Berdych, the world #1 likewise has evaded his projected semifinal with Murray, who defeated him at two hard-court majors.  While Federer certainly has accumulated a superior hard-court resume, Nadal won their only clash at a hard-court Slam last year in Australia.  Before that potential final crystallizes, however, Rafa must defuse his 2006 US Open nemesis and an opponent who has won four of their seven meetings on this surface.  Inflicting one of the most lopsided defeats of Nadal’s career in Chennai, Youzhny hasn’t scored a victory over the Spaniard at a significant tournament in several years, but his penetrating backhand remains a formidable weapon.  Always uncomfortable against foes with fierce two-handers, the top seed generally prospers against one-handed strokes by looping his high-bouncing groundstrokes near their shoulder level.  On the fast, relatively low-bouncing courts in New York, though, Nadal’s topspin forehands often remain within the strike zone of his opponents; this year, he has edged further towards a typical hard-court style by connecting with flatter strokes on both forehand and backhand.  Yet the most notable improvement in his game has been his serve, which faltered occasionally during his quarterfinal with Verdasco but still has been broken only once in the tournament.  Youzhny’s own serve has delivered impressively at key moments in his unexpected charge through the second quarter, frustrating Isner in tiebreaks and remaining steady deep in the fifth set against Wawrinka.  Although the Russian outlasted the Swiss #2 during that quarterfinal, fatigue may settle into his limbs prior to Saturday’s clash with Nadal, leaving him a crucial step or two slower and dulling his instincts.  On the other hand, the immense opportunity offered by a Slam semifinal may galvanize this underdog into a memorable performance.  In order to trouble the top seed, Youzhny should seek to keep him off balance by redirecting his groundstrokes, one of his trademark strengths, and by shortening the points with alert net approaches.  Especially expert in the forecourt, the twelfth seed would force Rafa to deliver precise passing shots.  The early stages will be crucial for the Russian’s confidence, so Nadal surely will be eager to assert his authority by establishing a swift lead with aggressive returning and emphatic serving.  If the Spaniard rolls through a swift opening set, he might cruise through the remainder of the match with minimal resistance.  If Youzhny musters determined opposition with crisp attacking play and crafty point construction, however, he could awaken a twinge of uncertainty in the top seed’s mind.   Engaging in cautious, elongated rallies with Wawrinka, the Russian found his superior consistency and patience rewarded by the Swiss.  In the semifinals, such a strategy would play directly into the hands of Nadal, who will outduel virtually any opponent in a war of attrition.  Lacking the explosive first-strike power to overwhelm the Spaniard from the baseline, though, Youzhny won’t win three sets from this physically punishing foe unless he enjoys an outstanding service day or Rafa struggles with the timing on his groundstrokes.

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Theoretically a more intriguing clash than the previous semifinal, the fourth US Open iteration of Federer-Djokovic might prove relatively formulaic.  Winning just one of the previous ten sets that they have played in New York, the Serb has competed sturdily for a set or two before gradually acknowledging the GOAT’s supremacy.  Five of the nine sets that Federer has won, in fact, were 7-5 or 7-6, suggesting that a few timely points played a disproportionate role in the outcomes of these matches.  Reflecting upon this recent history, the Swiss legend nearly crossed the border from confidence to complacency as he discussed the futility with which Djokovic continues to pound against the barrier constituted by himself.  Masterful in his quarterfinal victory over Soderling, Federer earned revenge for his Roland Garros debacle by returning to his familiar habits of deftly feathered volleys, unreturnable serves on break points, and expertly angled forehands from the center of the court.  Like Nadal, the second seed hasn’t dropped a set throughout his first five matches and, unlike Nadal, has been forced into only one tiebreak, although his pre-Soderling draw was rather toothless.   Solid on paper, Djokovic’s section also became rather toothless with indifferent efforts by potentially dangerous foes Fish and Monfils.  Three games from defeat in the opening round, the Serb has won fourteen consecutive sets while protecting his serve more effectively than he has for most of 2010.  Nevertheless, Djokovic occasionally dug early holes in his service games before his less focused, more erratic opponents considerately extricated him from these sometimes self-inflicted predicaments.  Determined to conclude a rollercoaster Slam campaign with an emphatic statement, the GOAT will not prove so charitable when offered opportunities.  But Federer also must guard against the lulls that have cost him entire games at crucial moments this year, including his encounter with the world #3 at the Rogers Cup.  Through the first set and a half, the five-time US Open champion thoroughly thrashed the Serb with a near-flawless display of all-court wizardry.  Settled comfortably into a set-and-break lead, Federer then relaxed his grip and suddenly found himself embroiled in an epic thriller as Djokovic swiftly capitalized upon the mental lapse.  In addition to seizing any such assistance with both hands, the Serb should attempt to stretch the GOAT wide to his forehand corner in order to expose his backhand, the department in which the third seed most clearly trumps the second seed.  Stunningly fleet of foot in his quarterfinal, Federer somehow managed to run around his weaker groundstroke regularly against Soderling, despite the Swede’s immense ball-striking power and the fast surface.  Essential to the Serb’s fate will be his success in punishing the Swiss legend’s second serve, a key to his momentous victory in the 2008 Australian Open semifinal.  If he can capture a significant percentage of Federer’s second-serve points, the five-time champion might respond by reducing the pace and precision on his first serve, thus diluting that pivotal weapon.  When the GOAT whirs through service games in one or two minutes, though, matching him hold for painstaking hold can become a mentally draining challenge indeed.  Unless Djokovic finds an unexpected reservoir of emotional fortitude, Federer’s seventh consecutive US Open final looms on Sunday.

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Will the second time be the charm for charming Wimbledon finalist Zvonareva?  Forestalling a rematch of last year’s final in New York, she displayed an impressively clear-headed performance in upsetting top-seeded Wozniacki amidst frustratingly windy conditions.  Unruffled by the largest stadium in tennis, this introverted Russian exuded similar composure in previous rounds against error-prone sluggers Petkovic and Kanepi.  Perhaps the most compelling lesson to draw from the Russian’s sudden breakthrough, therefore, is the centrality of the sport’s mental dimension; Zvonareva has arrived at consecutive major finals with precisely the same game that led to a series of ignominious defeats at previous Slams.  Although a significant underdog when she confronts the defending champion, she should benefit from the recent experience of playing for the Wimbledon title against Serena.  Even in that match, Vera performed better than have many other first-time Slam finalists (including some of her compatriots) and competed more impressively than the scoreline suggested.  Moreover, the blue-eyed Russian twice defeated Clijsters this summer after dropping their five previous meetings, so the momentum rests squarely with the seventh seed in their renewed rivalry.  Admittedly faced with a more intimidating draw, the Belgian has looked less impressive than Zvonareva throughout the fortnight, succumbing to passivity for extended periods against both Stosur and Venus.  When those matches threatened to lurch out of her grasp, however, Clijsters found her concentration and confidence just in time to unleash her finest tennis.  Clearly at her most sparkling on American hard courts, she possesses slightly more sting on her groundstrokes than Zvonareva and moves with greater explosiveness.  On the other hand, her sturdy but not overpowering serve will allow the Russian to sink her teeth into plenty of rallies and establish the rhythm that she relishes.  As dangerous on the return as on the serve, Vera and Kim might begin the majority of their exchanges in a relatively neutral mode while relying upon their groundstrokes to inflict the greatest damage.  Transitioning expertly from defense to offense, both competitors should remain as close to the baseline as possible rather than ceding territory with which their opponent could open up angles.  Consequently, the match probably will hinge not upon their relative strategic choices, which should be largely similar, but upon the relative levels of execution with which they pursue their strategies.  Rallying from a one-set deficit in each of her two meetings with Clijsters this summer, Zvonareva will not sink into demoralized lethargy if early adversity strikes.  In a more plausible scenario, early diffidence from the defending champion might boost the Wimbledon finalist into an early lead that she then would be forced to protect.  An excellent frontrunner against top-seeded Wozniacki, Vera might find her newfound poise tested more severely under such circumstances than if she were compelled to launch a comeback.  In any event, one wouldn’t be surprised to witness the first three-set women’s final at the US Open since 1995, for this duo is fully capable of composing a worthy coda to the narrative of this especially labyrinthine and unpredictable Slam season in the WTA.

***

As the final weekend of the year’s final major approaches, will Saturday be Super or Soporific?  Before it begins, be sure to settle into a comfortable chair…

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