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Staring at an ominous deficit early in his semifinal against Isner, Djokovic demonstrated his revived willpower by breaking back after a marathon game that featured as many crisp returns as aces.  When he arrived at the tiebreak, the top seed struck a blow for versatility over one-dimensionality by dominating the American in a series of intelligently constructed rallies.  Throughout the match, in fact, Djokovic exerted firmer pressure upon Isner’s serve than he experienced on his own delivery, a reversal of expectations and an encouraging omen for 2011  Earlier this year, the Serb had struggled to hold serve at crucial moments, but his confidence in the shot clearly has returned.  His serve should play a key role against an exceptionally gifted returner in Ferrer, who compensates for his unprepossessing delivery by frequently breaking his opponents.  Grinding down less mentally sturdy opponents, the Spaniard followed an oddly lopsided victory over world #5 Soderling with a more characteristic nail-biter against Ljubicic.

Armed with improved fitness and focus, Djokovic should control most baseline exchanges with his superior first-strike power on both sets of groundstrokes.  Despite Ferrer’s compact, efficient two-hander, the top seed’s backhand probably stands without peer in the ATP, providing him with a weapon as formidable as his forehand.  Fond of pounding inside-out forehands, the remorseless Spaniard should beware of the top seed’s ball-redirecting skills, which could punish Ferrer if he exposes too much territory by running around his backhand to unleash his favorite shot.  If Djokovic exploits openings to approach the net, however, he will find his newfound forecourt talents sternly tested by the fifth seed’s pinpoint passing shots.  Although they have split their four previous meetings, the Serb has won four of their five hard-court collisions and ten of the twelve sets that they have played on this surface.  On the other hand, Ferrer’s lone ambush occurred in similar circumstances; he conquered a diffident Djokovic in the 2007 year-end championships after Novak had reached the US Open final.  Three years later, the Serb has gained maturity through adversity and should generate sufficient intensity to defend his title in the Chinese capital.

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As even as the record between Djokovic and Ferrer stands the record between Wozniacki and Zvonareva, who have split their four completed meetings and their two completed meetings this year.  But the scorelines of these last two encounters testify to their odd dynamic, featuring one occasion when the Russian sprayed balls everywhere except inside the lines (Montreal) and another occasion when the Dane never saw a mid-court forehand that she couldn’t shank.  Far more scintillating, their three-set clash in Doha last year illustrated the heights that this mini-rivalry could reach when both competitors deliver their best efforts.  Having dropped just one set through five matches, Zvonareva overcame a more arduous array of opponents yet surrendered just eight total games to Schiavone and home favorite Li Na.  In both of those matches, nevertheless, she thoroughly throttled those opponents during the early stages before faltering on serve once the finish line loomed.  The Russian must guard against a mental lull if she establishes an early advantage over Wozniacki, who exploited such a lapse a week ago in the Tokyo final against Dementieva.  Somewhat more powerful than the new #1, Zvonareva poses an especially formidable challenge for her because she can match the Dane’s consistency from the baseline.  Her dangerous but sometimes unreliable forehand might play a central role in the match’s outcome, as will her ability to jerk Wozniacki forwards out of her baseline comfort zone.  In their US Open semifinal, Vera not only strategized brilliantly beforehand but executed her tactics confident from beginning to end.  With an equally poised effort, Zvonareva can claim the second Premier Mandatory title of her career.  Despite her recent, deservedly lauded triumph over the emotional frailties that long beset her, the Russian’s poise still deserts her during finals and allows those inner demons to rear up from her psyche again.

 

Having won her last five finals, by contrast, Wozniacki has compiled a spectacular second-half winning streak at non-majors that began with her home tournament in Copenhagen and continued with titles in Montreal, New Haven, and Tokyo.  She contests her second Premier Mandatory final of 2010, having fallen to Jankovic in the Indian Wells championship match.  Conquering a player who will join her among the top three on Monday, the new #1 could consolidate her precarious status at the top while sending the returning Serena a message of intent.  Incurred in the quarterfinals, a knee injury chronically hampered her in a semifinal victory over Peer.  Beyond its impact upon her movement, the uncertain knee seemed to undermine her focus during the first set, when she uncharacteristically squandered a commanding lead.  On the other hand, her uncertainty over the injury impelled her to sting her groundstrokes more fiercely than usual, an exercise in aggression that could serve her well against Zvonareva.  In addition to her penetrating backhand, Wozniacki demonstrated an ability to flatten out her forehand that rarely surfaces when she enjoys maximum fitness.  (Why can’t we see this shot more often?)  Vital to her rise through the rankings, moreover, is an inner determination belied by her blonde braid and well-manicured nails.  Combining that trait with the confidence inspired by her four recent titles, the Dane hopes to outlast the one-woman Russian rollercoaster across the net.  By shoveling shots deep down the center and incorporating rhythm-blunting moonballs, she can lure the impetuous Zvonareva into attempting overly aggressive angles.  Wozniacki won’t do anything especially eye-opening on a key point, but she also won’t do anything especially horrific. While this unglamorous style doesn’t win her many fans, it has won and will continue to win her many matches as long as the WTA remains in its current state of flux.  Unless Zvonareva swiftly sweeps her aside in a pair of unblinkingly dominant sets, Wozniacki will be the last woman standing once again.

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We return tomorrow with a preview of the Masters 1000 draw in Shanghai, but now it’s time to wave goodbye to a sometimes inspiring, often bizarre, and constantly scintillating week in Beijing!

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