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As the twin tournaments in Beijing escalate towards a climax, the action shifts from Moon Court to Lotus Court.  Which two men and two women will blossom in the Chinese capital?  Semifinal previews ahead…

Djokovic vs. Isner:  Maintaining the intensity that he displayed at the US Open, the defending champion here cruised past a Chinese qualifier and then easily overcame Simon, who had flustered him in four of their five previous meetings.  More motivated and purposeful than during the first half, Djokovic unleashed suffocating groundstrokes on both wings that pinned his victims well behind the baseline while regularly threatening them on their service games.  The latter objective probably lies beyond the Serb’s grasp when he confronts a towering American who nearly toppled him in a memorable Davis Cup clash this year.  Even on the Belgrade clay, Isner tested Djokovic’s resolve by relentlessly holding serve and exploiting openings with penetrating forehands.  Saving all six break points against Davydenko a round ago, he benefits from an especially effective wide serve in the ad court, where almost all break points are decided.  Generally sturdy on serve this week, the defending champion did suffer occasional lapses such as his attempt to serve out the first set against Simon, a game that witnessed seven deuces and several break points.  In order to destabilize Djokovic’s fluid, rhythmic style, Isner must serve aggressively on second balls as well as first balls, vigorously attack the Serb’s own second serve, and shield his indifferent backhand.  A threat to upset almost anyone when at his best, the distinctive challenge posed by the American will compel the top seed to sharpen his focus and guard his patience.  Most of Isner’s matches are decided by a few key points, adding a layer of dramatic suspense that compensates in part for his stylistic monotony.  In these encounters of short points and comfortable holds, very few significant moments will arrive, but those that do will be extremely significant.

Ferrer vs. Ljubicic:  Although the Spaniard has won all but one of their previous meetings, they have met just once on a surface other than Ferrer’s beloved clay.  The diminutive David did win that Dubai clash in three sets, but Ljubicic’s crackling serve has dispatched two top-10 players already this week in echoes of his implausible fortnight at Indian Wells.  Mellow and leisurely while Ferrer is fiery and frenzied, the Croat overcame both US Open semifinalist Youzhny and a rather tepid Murray, probably still pondering his New York demise.  Also limp this week was the Spaniard’s most recent victim, Soderling, who normally excels on this surface and during this stage of the season.  One of the finest returners in the ATP, Ferrer’s sparkling reflexes and compact strokes will force Ljubicic into more rallies than he would prefer.  Possessing a serve vastly inferior to his opponent’s delivery, the Spaniard proved equal to a similar dynamic in his victory over the world #5.  Despite his limited power, he continues to compete with an unflinching tenacity matched by few opponents—and certainly not by this particular opponent.  Far from feckless on fast surfaces, Ferrer recorded his best Slam performance at the swiftest major of all when he reached a semifinal at the 2007 US Open.  But will his admirable willpower outweigh the avalanche of aces that Ljubicic can casually unleash?  The amiable Croat ultimately holds the key to his own destiny, for a stellar serve generally trumps a stellar return game in the ATP.

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Li vs. Zvonareva:  Splitting their six previous meetings, all on hard courts, the Chinese and the Russian should engage in a scintillating battle of backhands.  Li strikes her groundstrokes a little earlier than Zvonareva, creating bolder angles but allowing herself less margin for error.  Delighting her compatriot fans, the ninth seed rampaged through her first few rounds before a less dominant victory in her quarterfinal against Sevastova.  By contrast, Zvonareva recorded her most emphatic win of the week in her preceding match, a stunningly one-sided demolition of fellow top-10 resident Schiavone.  Both players can fall prey to their nerves as often as their opponents and can donate perplexing gaffes when seemingly in a commanding position.  When they dueled for the bronze medal in Beijing two years ago, Li staggered through a ghastly first set but then nearly snatched the second set from a visibly tightening Zvonareva before crumbling in its final moments.  With two such volatile and unpredictable competitors, any outcome could result from a 50-minute rout to a third-set tiebreak.  If the Chinese and the Russian display their impressive talents at the same time, however, captivating rallies and tensely contested service games should ensue.  And no lead will be safe.

Wozniacki vs. Peer:  Now 22-1 at non-majors since Wimbledon, the Great Dane seeks revenge for an unexpected loss to the Israeli in Dubai.  To the chagrin of Ivanovic fans worldwide, Wozniacki suffered no wobble after clinching the #1 ranking with a victory over Kvitova.  On the other hand, she did suffer a second-set tumble that didn’t hamper her movement for the rest of that match but might return to haunt her a day later.  Having not dropped a set through four rounds, Peer has equaled her best career performance at an event of this magnitude, a 2007 semifinal at Indian Wells.  Dormant until Dubai, she had lost both of her previous meetings with Wozniacki that had reached completion (a third meeting ended in a retirement).  Breaking down their games one shot at a time, one can’t discern any area in which she enjoys a discernible advantage over the Dane.  When they met in the Middle East, Wozniacki’s game had sagged to a particularly low ebb, underscored by an Australian Open loss to Li Na that featured just three winners from the then-teenager.  Unless Wozniacki delivers an inexplicably hapless performance like her US Open semifinal, she should ease through to a Tour-leading seventh final of 2010. Since Peer can’t outhit her from the baseline, the new #1 should consider elevating her own aggression in order to gain experience that could aid her against more formidable opponents ahead.

***

The lights may have dimmed on the Moon Court, but several stars remain upon which to gaze in thoughtful contemplation.

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