Roger Federer - 2011 Australian Open - Day 11

Maneuvering around obstacles of varying obduracy, the top two seeds have arrived in the semifinals at both events on the Persian Gulf.  Will they progress one step further to their appointed destinations, or does an unforeseen patch of quicksand lie ahead?  We examine each of their situations before the penultimate rounds of Dubai and Doha.

Federer:  In a recent ad for Credit Suisse, the 16-time major champion reclines on his bed in peaceful repose.  Only somewhat less somnolent here, Federer has meandered in leisurely majesty through a draw of thoroughly outclassed opponents.  Against the unimposing Stakhovsky, however, the Swiss legend found himself forced to save nine break points on his serve as his loose-limbed nonchalance verged on carelessness.  Since he must overcome either Djokovic or Berdych in the final, the world #2 will need to heighten his intensity at that stage if he plans to caress a fifth Dubai trophy with his elegant fingers.  But, at this stage, a garden-variety GOAT  may prove more than sufficient to overcome Gasquet, a surprise semifinalist who spared Federer the trouble of defusing Simon.

Just 5-4 in 2011 before this week, the Frenchman has not defeated the Swiss since their thrilling duel in Monte Carlo six long years ago.  Uneasily wearing the appellation of “baby Federer,” Gasquet has dropped his last seven encounters with his pseudo-parent, including a nondescript meeting at the Paris Indoors last fall.  A player of fits and starts, flashes and jolts, Richard has snatched a few small titles but has fallen far short of the consistency or the fitness necessary to capitalize upon his uncanny talents.  Tracing the boundary between effortless and casual, his rococo shot-making rarely finds its targets throughout an entire match, much less an entire tournament.  On Thursday, though, the Frenchman rebounded impressively from a limp first set against Simon to reassert his mastery over his compatriot with timely serving and deft finesse in the forecourt.  But Federer enjoys a far more penetrating groundstroke arsenal than Simon, so Gasquet will find fewer opportunities to sally forward unless he maintains a high first-serve percentage.  Battered by multiple forms of adversity throughout his career, the Frenchman has settled steadily (and not unhappily, we suspect) into the role of best supporting actor.  Artistry and grace cannot compensate for competitive complacency, as Federer himself has discovered during his decline.

Djokovic:  Less emphatic than the top seed, the reigning Australian Open champion sagged into lethargy during prolonged passages of his victories over Lopez and Mayer.  Wrapping his knee as he did against Murray, Djokovic frequently lacked the explosive movement that frustrated Federer in Melbourne.  One also wonders whether he approaches this relatively minor event with a vigor diluted by his heroics at the Australian Open.  Surely still bathed in that glory, Djokovic enters Dubai with nothing to prove; in stark contrast, his two championship runs here followed embarrassing quarterfinal exits at his most successful major.  On the other hand, the moderately paced Dubai surface favors his balanced all-court style, as he demonstrated with consecutive title runs in 2009-10.

After a whiplash-inducing 2010, Berdych has found a measure of stability early in 2011.  While less brilliant than he suggested at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, he has risen out of his ignominious second-half slump to remind rivals of his relevance.  The Czech ball-bruiser has reached at least the quarterfinals in all five of his events this season, although he has not yet progressed to a final.  At the Australian Open, he fell prey to an inspired Djokovic in a straight-setter that exposed his labored movement and questionable shot selection.  Rather than a steady diet of baseline lasers, the Serb showcased less familiar elements in his multifaceted game against a befuddled Berdych, who struggled to bend for backhand slices and reverse the direction of his unwieldy frame for wrong-footing shots.  In order to produce that intelligent brand of tennis, however, Djokovic must sharpen his focus from the previous rounds.  On this occasion, will he target Berdych’s weaknesses or exploit his own strengths?

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark poses with the trophy after beating Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia and winning the final of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship at the Dubai Tennis Stadium on February 20, 2011 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Wozniacki:  Seemingly sturdier with every tournament that she plays this season, the world #1 surely will finish the year with a major title if she continues this upward trajectory.  As her fortnight in the Persian Gulf has progressed, she has stepped inside the baseline with increasing frequency and authority.  Against opponents such as Kuznetsova and Petrova, Wozniacki ventured out of her cross-court comfort zone and began to redirect her groundstrokes down the line with greater confidence.  Her whippy, aesthetically unattractive forehand also started to penetrate the court more effectively as she struck it earlier and flattened her swing.

Previously flirting with heightened aggression at times, Wozniacki has retreated to her counter-punching comfort zone when she confronts a more imposing opponent.   Yet the attributes outlined above will prove essential for winning Slam titles, so the 20-year-old must adhere to such tactics as tenaciously as she patrols the baseline during rallies.  Undone by Bartoli in Cincinnati last year, Wozniacki has lost her last two clashes with a Frenchwoman who has returned from a Melbourne injury in torrid form.  Conceding only seven games in her last five sets against Kleybanova, Peer, and Peng, Bartoli could trouble the rhythm-oriented Dane with her darting, double-fisted lasers.  If the Frenchwoman pins Wozniacki behind the baseline, she can plant herself in the center of the court and dictate rallies by creating the angles unique to her eccentric style.  But, if the top seed refuses to retreat, she could keep the offense-only Bartoli scrambling reactively without the time required to measure her targets.  Nearly equaling her opponent’s recent brilliance, Wozniacki lost just seven total games to Petrova and Pennetta, while she can draw confidence from the memory of her finals appearance on this court last fall.  Moreover, a relatively insignificant tournament like this ordinary Premier event offers her an opportunity to hone her aggression in preparation for grander stages.

Zvonareva: Reaching three previous finals in Doha, the top-ranked Russian collaborated with Hantuchova on a match that towered above this otherwise lackluster tournament like a minaret in the desert.  Zvonareva deserves full credit for surviving their 189-minute epic in better condition than the manicures of many viewers, and Hantuchova deserves sympathy for losing her second marathon match of the season after dropping a 219-minute battle at the Australian Open.  Undeterred by Hantuchova’s third-set resilience on serve, the second seed battled through equally arduous games on her own serve and stayed within range to exploit the predictable opportunity when it arrived.  Emotionally elated by avenging her Pattaya City defeat, Vera also will enter the semifinals physically weary—not an ideal condition in which to confront the grinding Jankovic.

When the Serb stood atop an anarchic WTA in late 2008, she won three consecutive hard-court collisions with Zvonareva before falling to her on this court in the year-end championsips.  As her star waned and the Russian’s waxed, the trajectory of their scintillating rivalry reversed itself with three victories last year.  While Zvonareva has faltered at times in early 2011, Jankovic has taken tentative steps towards revitalizing herself, so another twist might lie ahead.  This compelling semifinal will test the Serb’s surge in self-belief and perhaps inspire her to unexpected feats on the North American hard courts where she has prospered before.  Will the 2009 Indian Wells champion or the 2010 Indian Wells champion bring greater momentum from one desert to another?