Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia plays Aravane Rezai of France during the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on March 14, 2011 in Indian Wells, California.

Blondes:

Sharapova vs. Wozniacki:  A virtual final, this marquee semifinal nearly did not happen and would not have happened had not Sharapova flashed a glimpse of the fortitude that has formed the foundation for her three major titles. Serving at 2-3, 15-40 in the third set of her quarterfinal, the statuesque Siberian looked deflated after a commanding lead had slipped away from her.  At that crossroads, though, the three-time Slam champion gritted through three break points and unleashed three consecutive winners to hold serve.  Battling to break point on Peng’s serve a game later, Sharapova then raced desperately across her baseline to toss up a lob that drew a match-turning error from her opponent.

As her once-seismic serve has faded, Sharapova often has shone more brightly during return games in her comeback.   This pattern of wavering serves and dismissively lethal returns has continued here, where she has broken opponents on 28 of 46 service games while struggling at times to find the rhythm with her own delivery.  Nevertheless, Maria cannot rely upon maintaining that ratio when she confronts Wozniacki, a sturdy albeit not overwhelming server.  Advancing anticlimactically with Azarenka’s retirement, the world #1 will punish Sharapova for any of the extended lulls into which she fell against Medina Garrigues and Peng.   Poised closer to the baseline in her recent tournaments, the Dane should maintain that position and display plenty of positive body language, thus physically asserting herself against an opponent who relies upon imposing herself through weight of shot and weight of personality.  Armed with more consistent technique and greater versatility, Wozniacki should aim to feed the Russian deep groundstrokes down the center of the court.  When stretched wide along the baseline, Maria not only can pinpoint a variety of angles but also recognizes that she must unleash a mighty, terminal blow.  Such clarity of mind allows her to swing with greater conviction and fluidity, whereas she often grows tentative and wooden when lured into a vertically oriented rally.

As she did in their US Open confrontation, Sharapova likely will pull the trigger when the hint of an opportunity first presents itself.  Either too respectful of Wozniacki’s movement or too unsure of her own consistency there, she seemed rigidly determined to deny her fleet-footed foe a second life in a rally and consequently crossed from aggression into recklessness.  On that occasion, Sharapova doubled the Dane’s winner count while tripling her unforced-error total.  The Russian likely will dominate in both of those categories once again, for her groundstrokes clear the net by a much lower margin and flirt much more brazenly with the lines.  One expects to see electrifying winners and egregious errors fly from the Russian’s racket in equal proportion.  Meanwhile, Wozniacki should calmly pursue the Aristotelian ideal of moderation in all things, a style more suited than Sharapova’s raw ferocity to these slow courts where the world #1 seeks a second straight final.

Novak Djokovic - BNP Paribas Open

Backhands:

Gasquet vs. Djokovic:  Fresh from the first pair of consecutive top-10 victories in his career, the Frenchman has telegraphed a resurgence that began with a handful of creditable performances in Melbourne and Dubai.  An aesthetic pleasure to contemplate when at his best, Gasquet never has fulfilled and probably never will fulfill the potential that once inspired commentators to dub him the “baby Federer.”  Yet he will continue to stir anxiety in the minds of leading contenders for years to come, possessing an uncanny timing and instinctive touch that often left his victims here frozen behind the baseline or floundering towards the net.  Fitter and more focused than he has looked in years, Gasquet displayed impressive durability by capturing the majority of the extended rallies that he has played in the desert.  On the other hand, the Frenchman’s mind still can fail him under pressure, a flaw that Djokovic probably can exploit more effectively than did Roddick or Melzer.

The Serb has advanced to the quarterfinals with farcical ease, extending his winning streak to 17 consecutive matches while dropping six total games to his three opponents.  While his confidence clearly soars as high as it ever has, those routs owed as much to the desultory performances of Djokovic’s opponents as to his own prowess.  Considering the lack of resistance, one wonders whether he will enter potential meetings with Federer and Nadal a trifle untested and complacent.  Among the most compelling narratives of this match is the contrast between Djokovic’s crisp two-handed backhand and Gasquet’s effortless one-handed flick.  The Frenchman overwhelmed Roddick in the backhand-to-backhand rallies that he staged, but he will encounter far more difficulty in breaking down the Serb’s signature shot.  Equally willing to reverse direction from that wing, these two players can generate as much offense from that wing as from their forehands, the shot around which the ATP currently revolves.

Wawrinka vs. Federer:  Surely delighted to avoid 2010 nemesis Berdych in the quarterfinals, the world #2 will relish the sight of his doubles partner across the net.  Afflicted with almost paralytic deference in many of the previous meetings, Wawrinka ignited a late-career surge last summer that propelled him to competitive performances against virtually every member of the ATP elite—except his compatriot.  Observers around the world (including ourselves, regrettably) trumpeted the Swiss #2’s emergence as a genuine contender when he dominated Roddick in the fourth round of the Australian Open one major after expelling Murray from New York.  Two days later, Wawrinka collected just seven games in three sets from a Federer a few degrees below his vintage peak.   Consequently, the momentum gained from his notable three-set victories over Davydenko and Berdych may evaporate under the desert sun when he collides with the 16-time major champion.

But Federer has scarcely resembled a 16-time major champion in two of his first three matches here, uneven performances against Andreev and Ryan Harrison in which his first serve faltered for prolonged periods and his forehand did not crackle with its usual vigor.  If Wawrinka can steel himself to view Roger as just another immensely talented but human opponent, this encounter could become a scintillating all-court battle.  Perhaps the only area in which the Swiss #2 surpasses the Swiss #1, however, is his backhand.  Whereas Federer’s one-hander has declined into a generally neutral rally shot or slice, his acolyte projects the full force of his compact physique behind his heavier, more penetrating stroke.  Before he succumbs to his compatriot’s superiority, as seems inevitable, audiences can marvel at the spectacle of a stunningly graceful shot trapped in an otherwise graceless game.

And Bartoli:

Wickmayer vs. Bartoli:  Extricated from fourth-round peril when Clijsters retired, Bartoli has seized her opportunity with both hands as she has so often throughout her career.  Once facing double match point against Jankovic in a Stanford quarterfinal, the resilient Frenchwoman dodged those bullets before ultimately overcoming Stosur and Venus en route to the title.  Could she scrip a similar narrative to claim what would rank as the most significant title of her career?  Suffering from illness in her quarterfinal, Bartoli nevertheless battled through a pair of tight sets against Ivanovic and now eyes an opponent whom she defeated twice last year.  After a thunderous start to 2010, Wickmayer tumbled sharply towards the end but should have regained ample self-belief here with a semifinal charge during which she has outlasted gritty opponents Cibulkova and Peer.  Even more combative than the Belgian is Bartoli, though, and she handled the comparable pressure of their 2010 Miami quarterfinal more adeptly.  Her experience may prove as great a weapon as the superior athleticism of Wickmayer, unless her ailing body drains her willpower.  No matter the outcome of either semifinal, the finalist from this half will enter Sunday’s championship match as a significant underdog.

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