Nadal-Berdych:  Just a set away from assuring a semifinal berth, Rafa has won his last 17 sets against the Czech challenger, although they played only six of those sets on hard courts.  One must rewind four years to find Berdych’s most recent triumph over the Spaniard, an ill-tempered victory on the hard indoor venue of the Madrid Masters.  Often at his best during the fall (although not this fall), the Wimbledon finalist arose from his second-half slumbers late in the first set against Roddick, avenging three previous defeats against the American in 2010.  After Berdych erased two set points, he consolidated his momentum without allowing Roddick a respite and showed glimmers of the aggressive, opportunistic shot-making that defined his midseason surge.  In the midst of that breakthrough, however, he mustered scant resistance to Nadal during a maiden Slam final at Wimbledon.   Perhaps a little intimidated by those unfamiliar circumstances, Berdych dropped his serve five times in a testament to the Spaniard’s peerless reflexes and instincts. Even before Nadal’s resurgence, the Czech also fell to him in a competitive but ultimately predictable Indian Wells quarterfinal; there, Berdych outplayed Rafa for extended periods only to donate untimely unforced errors during the second-set tiebreak.

Chronically tentative on his least favorite surface this week, Nadal might wish to unleash the bolder, flatter forehands that he displayed in New York rather than the looping forehands that will linger in his tall opponent’s high contact zone.  While his serve has not reached its US Open pinnacle, he has protected it valiantly and surrendered it only twice in his last 24 service games.  In order to reach the semifinals, Berdych must win at least a set and probably receive external assistance as well.  If Nadal relaxes his focus after winning the one set that he needs, the world #6 could slip away with the set that he needs.  Whether or not Berdych reaches the semifinals, though, he can conclude his 2010 campaign on an encouraging note by threatening the Spaniard more than he has since 2006.  He should approach Nadal with the same fearlessness that he displayed against Federer in Miami, realizing that he has nothing to lose but the match.

Djokovic-Roddick:  Accumulating a reputation for valiant defeats, Roddick collaborated with Nadal on the most compelling match during round-robin play thus far.  Few fans will support his recent conqueror more ardently than the American on Friday, for he relies upon a straight-sets win by Nadal in order to preserve his fragile semifinal hopes.  But perhaps those hopes are not so fragile, for Roddick has won his last nine sets from the world #3, including a Cincinnati quarterfinal this summer just before Djokovic’s run to the US Open final.  If he can extend that streak to eleven consecutive sets, he will reach his fourth semifinal at the year-end championships.  Crisp and efficient against Berdych, Djokovic surely would have tested Nadal more severely had not a quirk of fate intervened while the match lay delicately poised at 4-4 in the first set.  Meanwhile, Roddick declined notably from the lofty standard of his first match in a characteristically passive and eventually petulant loss to Berdych.

But the American’s serve appears to intimidate the Serb, who ruthlessly defused that shot at the 2008 US Open after gaining motivation from his opponent’s tactless witticisms about Djokovic’s physical frailties.  In ironic succession to that moment came the turning point in this odd, slightly hostile rivalry, a sun-soaked afternoon at the 2009 Australian Open where overwhelming heat forced Djokovic to withdraw from a match in which he had won the first set.  Throughout all three of their meetings since then, Novak wilted at crucial moments with senseless shot selection and untimely double faults that contrasted cruelly with the aces cascading from across the net.  Fortunate (or perhaps unfortunate) to attend two of these matches, we also noticed the sagging, defeatist body language of the Serb whenever confronted with adversity against the American.  When Djokovic did secure a break or a mini-break, he almost invariably returned the advantage with an unforced error accompanied by a fatalistic shrug or grimace; to Roddick’s credit, he capitalized shrewdly upon this curious psychological dynamic.   Beyond securing a semifinal spot, therefore, the Serb could carve a tasty slice of revenge by halting his recent futility against the American on a stage where others will notice.  Ultimately, Djokovic’s hopes for future major titles hinge upon his ability to consistently overcome players like Roddick.

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We return to preview the last semifinals of the season on Friday.

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