Caroline Wozniacki Jelena Jankovic (L) of Serbia is congratulated at the net by Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark during the final of the BNP Paribas Open on March 21, 2010 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California.

Wozniacki vs. Jankovic:  Winless in four career meetings against the Serb, the Dane failed to muster compelling resistance in their most notable collision.  On a windy Sunday afternoon last spring, Jankovic brushed aside her inexperienced opponent to collect the Indian Wells title.  Colliding with her nemesis in another desert, Wozniacki will aim to prove that she has progressed beyond that uncharacteristically error-strewn performance.  While the once and future #1 has not yet acquired a Slam trophy, her self-belief on grand stages will have risen after a torrid second half of 2010 led to two Premier Five titles, a Premier Mandatory title in Beijing, and a finals appearance at the year-end championships.  More secure in her position among the WTA elite, Wozniacki still must solve the tactical conundrum posed by a player whose counterpunching style so closely resembles her own.  Such a situation either will spur the Dane to depart from her comfort zone and embrace a higher degree of risk or will encourage her to await mistakes from Jankovic’s racket.  At Indian Wells last year, Wozniacki wavered diffidently between those options, usually favoring the former but retreating into the latter whenever risk did not reward.  This time, she must commit to either one tactic or the other from the outset.

Admiringly dubbed a “cockroach” by one imaginative observer, Jankovic has showcased her fabled survival instincts by extricating herself from peril twice already this week.  A round after preventing Kanepi from serving out their match, she saved seven of eight break points on her serve in the third set against Stosur, who watched a 4-1 lead evaporate.  Like Wozniacki, Jankovic has displayed a steeliness under pressure that belies her glittering smile.  Although she remains far from vintage form despite her three victories here, she typically has played herself into tournaments after barely escaping early-round losses.  One recalls the 2008 Australian Open, when Jelena saved match points against Paszek in the first round before ultimately defeating Serena in the quarterfinals.  Since neither Wozniacki nor Jankovic relies upon their serve for much more than starting a rally, they will engage in baseline battles that will exhibit two of the WTA’s finest backhands.  Or will they?  As cross-court exchanges develop, each player must decide whether to exploit a strength that she shares with her rival (backhand) or target a weakness that she also shares with her rival (forehand).  After two grueling matches under the Dubai lights, the Serb may not bring much energy to an afternoon semifinal against an opponent who will test her fitness.  On the other hand, cockroaches thrive in warm conditions.

Kuznetsova vs. Pennetta:   In an odd parallel with the other semifinal, the Italian has dropped all four of her meetings against an opponent who finally may have shed the malaise that plagued her throughout 2010.  To be sure, Kuznetsova did not completely quell her frailties during a straight-sets victory over Radwanska in the quarterfinals.  Sveta twice failed to serve out the 66-minute first set and botched an inviting mid-court forehand on one of her match points.  As this week has progressed, though, the two-time Dubai finalist has grown more assertive with all of her groundstrokes, thumping her less renowned two-hander with as much authority as her forehand.  Although she can strike off-balance forehands with surprisingly effective results, Kuznetsova has looked technically and strategically crisper this week than she has throughout most of her slump.  Combined with her 39 winners against Radwanska were 28 net approaches, a bold ploy against a foe with such precise passing shots.  Crucially, the Russian’s occasional reverses in the forecourt did not deter her from scuttling forward when another opportunity beckoned.  Rarely noted for discretion, she nevertheless displayed a trace of patience by maneuvering Radwanska out of position early in rallies rather than blasting a forehand and a prayer at the nearest line.

Snatching a single set from Kuznetsova in their earlier encounters, Pennetta has endured a series of embarrassments at the hands of the two-time major champion.  In the eight sets that she has lost to the Russian, she has won just twelve total games while suffering no fewer than three bagels and two breadsticks.  Watching them contest a San Diego semifinal last summer, it became painfully apparent that Pennetta could find little shelter from Kuznetsova’s merciless forehands, which pinned her too far behind the baseline to unleash her more subtle weapons.  When the Russian struggles to find her range, as in the first set of that match, the Italian can exacerbate her opponent’s uncertainties by varying the pace and spin on both her serve and her groundstrokes.  But little in Pennetta’s game can unsettle Kuznetsova on days when she unleashes the full scope of her shot-making prowess.   Likely to face Flavia again when Russia hosts Italy in a Fed Cup semifinal, Sveta should continue her mastery over this non-rivalry if she can ride the surging wave of self-belief on which her successes this week have carried her.

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We return tomorrow with previews of the finals in Dubai, Memphis, and Marseille.  As always, feel free to comment on, concur with, or challenge what you read here.

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic of Serbia celebrates winning a point during her Round 1 match against Patty Schnyder of Switzerland during day two of the WTA Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships at the Dubai Tennis Stadium on February 15, 2011 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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