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Whether thundering or tiptoeing past the pitfalls distinct to the round-robin format, the top three women in the world join a plucky Australian in the Doha semifinals.  Who will edge one step closer to claiming the largest single paycheck in the sport?

Stosur vs. Clijsters:

Winless in four career meetings against Clijsters, the Australian fell to the Belgian during the latter’s title runs this year at Miami and the US Open.  Nevertheless, Stosur edged progressively closer to snapping the skid in New York, where she not only won a set from the defending champion but held multiple leads in the final set.  During the first two matches of her Doha debut, the Maroon Group winner recalled the explosive serve-forehand combinations that she regularly unleashed during the first half of the season.  Neither the quirky Schiavone nor the methodical Wozniacki could trouble Stosur on her serve after she recovered from an inauspicious opening to her first match.  Just as encouraging to her fans was the Aussie’s success in converting the few break points that she obtained on the world #1’s serve.  In a fraught clash with Dementieva, however, traces of frailty resurfaced as she failed to close out a straight-sets victory and staggered under the pressure of a third-set tiebreak.  At the US Open, Stosur’s serve (and, seemingly, her nerve) abandoned her when the Belgian’s mid-match ineptitude opened a pathway to a spectacular upset.   Suddenly unable to hold, the Aussie allowed Clijsters as many lives as a cat.  Yet their New York encounter occurred in the aftermath of a tepid summer for Stosur, whereas this clash will unfold at a moment when her self-belief should approach pre-Wimbledon heights.

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Idle since defending her US Open title, Clijsters settled somewhat tentatively into the week with a win over Jankovic that featured ten double faults.  The deceptively one-sided scoreline thus illustrated the Serb’s stutters as much as the Belgian’s brilliance.  In a three-set victory over the tempestuous Azarenka, moreover, the world #3 struggled to convert opportunities to finish the match in straight sets and profited from yet another third-set meltdown by the Belarussian.  While her loss to Zvonareva may have boosted the Russian’s confidence (see below), one suspects that Clijsters felt little urgency to win an essentially meaningless encounter.  But can she banish that complacency overnight?  Surely aware of her commanding head-to-head against Stosur, she should enter their semifinal confident that she can end the Aussie’s season.  If Clijsters rises to the level that she displayed late in the US Open, she should prevail as the more versatile, nuanced, and athletic player.  If she continues to wobble through adventurous service games, though, Stosur might connect with just enough timely returns to cement her breakthrough 2010 campaign with another head-turning triumph.

Zvonareva vs. Wozniacki:

The ultra-steady Dane faces the ultra-streaky Russian for the fifth time this year but for the first time during their respective tenures at #1 and #2.  Splitting her six previous collisions with Wozniacki, Zvonareva conquered her when they met in the US Open semifinal, a routine result that startled most observers.  Clearly fond of this tournament, the Russian reached the final of its 2008 edition without dropping a match and has lost just three of her last fifteen matches in the Persian Gulf state.  The most impressive performer of the round-robin stage, she efficiently dismantled the doomed Jankovic and delivered a poised performance to overcome a determined effort by Azarenka.  During the latter match, the Russian rallied from an early deficit before shrugging off an untimely double fault in the first-set tiebreak, the type of error that once would have ignited a match-turning tantrum from her.  Having not lost a set this week, Vera will have gained confidence from recapturing the momentum in her mini-rivalry with Clijsters after her crushing defeat in the US Open final.  Although she succumbed to Wozniacki in the Beijing final, Zvonareva extended that match to a third set with artful tactics that included targeting the Dane’s forehand corner.  Likely to craft a similarly thoughtful plan here, the Russian must adhere to it through adversity as she did in New York rather than retreating into passivity as she did in Beijing.

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Charting an oddly circuitous course to the semifinals, the world #1 initiated proceedings by overwhelming a listless Dementieva.  Nestled in the more placid group, Wozniacki seemed likely at that stage to reach the semifinals without much ado, but she looked fallible in failing to convert a single break point on Stosur’s serve.  Flustered in the first set against Schiavone, the 20-year-old suddenly found herself within a set of elimination before halting the Italian’s momentum in its tracks. Having escaped that ignominious fate, Wozniacki now stands within two victories of buttressing her controversial ranking upon the most significant title of her career.  Even at the end of an exhausting season, she should approach this weekend with ample motivation.  When Caro confronted Vera here last year, moreover, she overcame a melodramatic bout of cramping to battle past the Russian; on the other hand, Zvonareva comprises a much more imposing challenge now than she did then.  As a result of their Beijing meeting, the momentum in their blossoming rivalry rests squarely in Wozniacki’s corner.  Yet the momentum in this tournament lies just as firmly with Zvonareva.  Which context will prove more relevant on Saturday?

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We return to preview the Doha final tomorrow while casting preliminary thoughts towards a Dementieva tribute to be published next week.

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