Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain serves in his second round match against Ryan Sweeting of the United States of America during day four of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 20, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Nadal vs. Ferrer:  Impeccable in their last seven meetings, the world #1 has dropped just one total set to a feisty grinder who sometimes can match him in consistency but not in power.  But their most recent meeting at a major came more than three years ago at the US Open, where Ferrer eagerly chipped away at his ailing compatriot like an zealous, unsophisticated sculptor with a block of Carrara marble.  From that gritty upset followed the finest few months of the diminutive Spaniard’s career, including not only a semifinal appearance in New York but a finals appearance at the year-end championships after another victory over Rafa.  Somewhat tentative in the first few sequels after those debacles, Nadal gradually rediscovered his comprehensive superiority in their rivalry, jerking David from side to side with harshly angled forehands.

An indifferent ball-striker with an average serve, Ferrer relies upon fitness, consistency, and competitive ferocity to nibble away at his opponents until they depart for less demanding pursuits.  In a healthy, confident Rafa, though, he confronts an opponent who runs as tirelessly as he does, retrieves as doggedly as he can, and covets each victory even more desperately than he does.  Although intrigue might develop if Nadal struggles once again with the illness that hampered during the first week, his emphatic performance against Cilic boded ill for Ferrer and the other six quarterfinalists.  Not quite convinced that the Rafa Slam will become reality, we remain firmly convinced that the world #7 will not disrupt his compatriot’s chance at history any more than Wawrinka succeeded in undermining Federer.

Dolgopolov vs. Murray:  In recent seasons, the Australian Open has featured a surprise success story in the men’s draw, and the charismatic Ukrainian became the flavor of the season with a rollercoaster five-set upset over world #4 Soderling.  Our first extended glimpse of Dolgopolov during that encounter left us with respect for his resilience but an ambivalent impression of his game.  Able to generate raw power as effortlessly as anyone, the only unseeded quarterfinalist can slap winners from anywhere on the court and often left the Swede flat-footed with his deceptive, compact strokes.  And yet his unrefined sense of point construction also spawns senseless unforced errors in shoals when his timing falters by just a fraction.  Likewise, Dolgopolov’s serve displays a fluid ease uninterrupted from toss to follow-through, but its technique lacks the structured precision of the ATP’s most formidable deliveries.

In contrast to Murray’s four feckless victims, the Ukrainian clearly has the ability to hit through him from the baseline when at his best.  Across the best-of-five format, the Scot remains vulnerable to ball-bruising, erratic foes who can spray groundstrokes for extended periods but survive to marshal their unruly weapons at crucial moments.  Toppled by volatile shot-makers like Verdasco, Cilic, and Wawrinka at hard-court majors, Murray nevertheless has looked as imperious this year as he did in 2010.  The world #5 likely will seek to stay within his counterpunching comfort zone for one more round until Nadal forces him out of it.  But will he leave that cozy haven if Dolgopolov reproduces the sporadically scintillating form that battered Tsonga and Soderling, or will he hope for his challenger to self-destruct?  If he has learned from his previous defeats at hard-court majors, he will choose the former approach.

Kim Clijsters - 2011 Australian Open - Day 8

Radwanska vs. Clijsters:  Twice clawing herself back from the edge of the cliff in this tournament, the petite Pole erased a double-break deficit in the final set against Date before swiping aside two match points against Peng.  Seemingly untroubled by the injury that nearly forestalled her entry here, she continues to unhinge the WTA’s baseline-bound journeywomen but did not face a top-50 opponent en route to her second Melbourne quarterfinal.  The competition spikes abruptly when she confronts the three-time US Open champion, although Clijsters has displayed somewhat less than commanding form in her last two matches against Cornet and Makarova.  Unable to exploit the early nerves of those untested opponents, the Belgian listlessly watched a first-set lead evaporate before collecting herself in the tiebreak.  

A sturdier competitor than Cornet or Makarova, Radwanska will capitalize upon any uneven blemishes on the third seed’s game, which otherwise should prove amply sufficient to dispatch her.  During the Pole’s stirring comeback over Peng, we observed her growing eagerness to step inside the baseline and punish mid-court replies, formerly an area in which she had struggled.  If she can master her counterpunching instincts to finish points with offense, her deft, wily finesse will become ever more lethal and unpredictable for her foes.  Less encouragingly, her chronic negativity also resurfaced with wails of dismay when rash forehands found the net.  A heavy underdog in her duel with Clijsters, Radwanska cannot afford to succumb to defeatism as she has in past clashes with the Williams sisters.

Kvitova vs. Zvonareva:   Igniting or perhaps reigniting their careers during the same fortnight, the 2010 Wimbledon semifinalist and 2010 Wimbledon finalist have split their two previous meetings with equally lopsided scorelines.  This statistic should not surprise, for both the Russian and the Czech bring moody, passionate personalities to the court that erupt in bursts of either positive or negative energy.  Despite the gap in their rankings, Kvitova has looked sharper for most of the tournament as she rifled forehand winners down the line and hooked them cross court at angles that only lefties can create.  The third consecutive Czech southpaw to face the world #2, her superior first-strike power should enable her to capture the initiative in rallies and dictate play from the baseline for better or for worse.  Aiding her in that endeavor is a versatile serve that can pinpoint both corners of each service box.

Much as she did against Kvitova’s compatriots and the emerging Jovanovski, Zvonareva will play intelligent, high-percentage tennis designed to expose her opponent’s inconsistency.  Can the Czech answer the challenging questions that the Russian poses?  More often than not, Zvonareva’s carefully engineered all-court game outlasts the sparks that fly from her shot-making foes, but her elevated ranking also stems from her talent at trading defense for offense when an opportunity arrives.  Like Li Na, her strength lies in her lack of a glaring weakness for opponents to target, buttressed as she is by symmetrical groundstrokes, a generally sturdy (albeit recently shaky) serve, and suffocating court coverage that has improved even further since her ankle surgery.  Nevertheless, this tougher, more confident Czech will not bounce as easily as the two before her.

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