Rafael Nadal Roger Federer of Switzerland (R) and Rafael Nadal of Spain share a moment during the prize giving ceremony after the mens final during the Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 17, 2009 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rafael Nadal;Roger Federer

Roger Federer Mens finalist Rafael Nadal and  Roger Federer of Switzerland hold aloft their trophies after the mens final match during the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 16, 2010 in Madrid, Spain.

Nadal vs. Federer:  Among the oddest moments of the 2010 season was the final shot (or non-shot) of their meeting last year in Madrid, a whiff by the 16-time major champion on the twelfth point of the second-set tiebreak.  Rarely has a Masters 1000 tournament ended in such anticlimactic fashion, but their 2009 final in the Caja Magica likewise exuded an air of anticlimax.  Exhausted by his semifinal classic with Djokovic that year, Nadal could not consistently challenge his archrival.  Nevertheless, each Madrid final propelled its victor towards the Roland Garros title three weeks later.  An altered schedule has reduced that potential impact, while Federer does not pose as serious a threat to Rafa’s supremacy on Court Philippe Chatrier as he once did.  Yet intrigue still hovers around their third meeting in the Spanish capital, where the atypically fast surface theoretically should offer the Swiss star his best possible opportunity to unseat the world #1 on clay.  In a quarterfinal victory over Soderling, his first win over a top-5 opponent this season, the third seed never lost his serve and moved more smoothly on the slippery surface than in earlier rounds.  During two brief excursions to the Caja Magica, meanwhile, Nadal has not lost his own serve and surrendered eight total games in performances crisper than many of his previous Madrid efforts.

As Rafa’s ascendancy over Roger has inexorably mounted, their rivalry has pivoted less around the question of “can Nadal topple the GOAT?” than the question of “can Federer conquer his nemesis?”  Following a lackluster loss to Nadal in Miami, some would suggest that the question has become “can Federer keep the match competitive?”  Although that formulation seems premature, the burden clearly rests on the Spaniard to maintain his current dominance over their rivalry.  This shift should allow the 16-time major champion to play with the fluid, confident aggression so rarely evident in his recent matches against Nadal.  But is Federer ready to recognize this shift and assume the underdog’s mantle?  Central to his achievements, a streak of rigid stubbornness may prevent him from perceiving himself as anything other than the favorite and the established champion, a role that he has played so well for so long.  In this waning phase of his career, Federer may need to become less gracious and more gritty.  Now when he plays Nadal, the inevitable uncertainties of an aging champion seep into his game and demeanor.  Virtually impenetrable on his favorite surface already, Rafa requires no such assistance in conquering the suave Swiss matador once more.

Bellucci vs. Djokovic:  At each of the first three Masters 1000 tournaments of the season, excluding the optional Monte Carlo event, the top three players have advanced to the semifinals.  At each of these tournaments, the architect of an unexpected breakthrough joins them—Del Potro in Indian Wells, Fish in Miami, and Belluci (perhaps most surprising of all) in Madrid.  And one can hardly claim that the Brazilian has profited from early upsets that vacated his draw, for he defeated fourth-seeded Murray and seventh-seeded Berdych in straight sets to reach the semifinals.  In an era when surface specialists have begun to decline, Bellucci’s progress through this prestigious event may suggest the continued relevance of expertise on clay.  Personifying the trend towards all-court versatility among the ATP’s elite, however, is a semifinal opponent buoyed by his victory over dirt devil par excellence Ferrer.

Repeatedly stymied by the Spaniard in their previous clay meetings, Djokovic will have acquired confidence from reversing those setbacks in a fiercely contested three-setter.  To be sure, some of the Serb’s self-deprecating grimaces, smirks, and shrugs crept back when he failed to capitalize upon a potentially decisive momentum shift that carried him from 3-4 in the first set to 2-0 in the second.  Impeccable late in the first and third sets, his serve grew unreliable on key points during the second set.  Counterbalancing those causes for concern, however, was his victory celebration after he ended the match.  Delighted but not delirious with joy, Djokovic conducted himself as a champion who had his expectations of eventual victory confirmed after an especially arduous battle.  That heightening maturity will serve him well against a competitor as raw as Bellucci, who at a certain psychological level must feel content to have penetrated as far into the draw as he already has.

Goerges vs. Azarenka:  Facilitating the German’s charge to the Porsche title, the world #5 retired after winning the first set of their Stuttgart meeting.  The latest potential sensation to emerge from the WTA, Goerges must take care to avoid following the routes of Martinez Sanchez and Rezai, who effectively evaporated after excelling on the road to Roland Garros last year.  Petkovic’s compatriot seemingly has a game better adapted to hard courts than to clay, but she demonstrated her ball-striking might by battering through Wozniacki’s defenses in consecutive weeks, no mean feat.  After three three-setters, she comfortably dispatched Pavlyuchenkova in a battle between German and Russian rising stars.  Her eight arduous hours in singles competition, however, contrast with the nearly effortless progress of Azarenka, detained for an hour or more by only one of her four opponents here.  Although she lost a set to Safarova for the first time in six meetings, the fourth seed finished that quarterfinal on an uplifting note, revealing no sign of the physical or mental frailty that has dogged her in long matches before.  While Goerges has won ten straight matches, Azarenka has won her last eighteen encounters excluding retirements and has not faced a match point since February.  Like their fellow semifinalists, these feisty competitors diverge from the familiar model of clay counterpunchers.  Capable movers with respectable consistency, Vika and her challenger nevertheless prowl the baseline eager for the first opportunity to launch a lasered groundstroke.  Can Azarenka finish in Madrid what she started in Stuttgart?

Victoria Azarenka - Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open - Day Seven

Li vs. Kvitova:  In their first career meeting, two players who will rank in the top 10 on Monday hope to rebound from suspenseful quarterfinals.  The formerly flaky Kvitova deserves high praise for chipping away at the baseline fortress of Cibulkova, who mustered far sturdier opposition to the Czech than in their previous clashes this year.  As Li Na has shown herself, inflammable upstarts become ever more dangerous when they gather impetus, and the Chinese star needed all of her competitive tenacity to subdue the startling surge of Bethanie-Mattek-Sands.  Eight years older and considerably more weathered than Kvitova, the sixth seed may not enter their semifinal as fresh as the 21-year-old Czech.  On the other hand, she adapts her movement to the clay more adroitly and strikes the ball a little earlier, allowing her to take the initiative more frequently in exchange for assuming greater risks.  While the Czech owns the superior serve, the Chinese enjoys a more scintillating backhand with which to complement her forehand.  Among the most mercurial personalities in a mercurial WTA elite, these two players will have combined to reach five finals and lose seven first-round matches in this season alone.  One thus expects an unpredictable match filled with stunning shot-making but also some egregious errors as Kvitova and Li target more lines than one typically would find in a clay semifinal.  Perhaps more prescient than Ion Tiriac knew was his suggestion of changing the surface color from red to blue.

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