Rafael Nadal - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Four

Nadal vs. Cilic:  One win away from securing the #1 ranking at least through Roland Garros, the Spaniard must conquer not only a Croatian tower of power but the illness that befell him this week.  Although Cilic defeated Nadal in Beijing 2009, the former task appears less imposing than the latter.  Stagnant for the past year and thoroughly uneasy on clay, the fading prodigy mustered just nine games when they met in Australia this January despite a relatively uneven performance by Rafa on that occasion.  At the root of his startling appearance at this stage lie the whimsical deities of the draw, which smiled upon Cilic by showering him with a retirement, a lucky loser after Ferrer’s withdrawal, and the equally clay-averse Fish.  Only another retirement or walkover, one suspects, would extend the world #23’s sojourn in the Eternal City, but Nadal’s uncertain condition brings that possibility within the realm of plausibility.  When ailing on a hard court far from home in Doha, though, the Spaniard gallantly battled through into the semifinals before succumbing to repeated nemesis Davydenko.  On European clay, his willpower surely will crystallize even more powerfully.

Gasquet vs. Berdych:  Scanning this quarter when the week began, few would have selected the Frenchman to survive until Friday.  But perhaps more of us should have, for Federer has struggled in Rome over the last several years, while Gasquet has enjoyed a miniature resurgence that started in Dubai and extended through an Indian Wells quarterfinal appearance.  Accessible to the casual fan as easily as to the aficionado, his breathtaking backhand and artistic shot-making continue to dazzle despite his slide outside the circle of contenders.  Now standing before the Frenchman is a dour Czech who opposes unvarnished baseline power to Gasquet’s mercurial all-court fluidity.  As one would expect considering the current trajectory of the ATP, unvarnished power prevailed in their two meetings since 2007, during which Berdych lost two or fewer games in four of the five sets.  With a famously frail opponent and perhaps a depleted Nadal blocking his path to the final, the world #7 should consider his draw a window of opportunity through which he can leap.  On the other hand, Berdych allowed the aging Nieminen to drag him into a needlessly prolonged three-setter today.  Which of these two chronic underachievers can carpe the diem in the nation of Horace?

Mayer vs. Murray:  Free from any member of the ATP’s reigning triumvirate, this section lay open for a player who once appeared more likely than Djokovic to challenge Nadal and Federer for supremacy.  Lowered expectations on clay may liberate Murray from the pressure that will oppress him at Wimbledon, but the Scot remains a reluctant dirt devil at best as shown in a rollercoaster three-set opener against Malisse.  To his credit, the fourth seed showed greater confidence in a potentially perilous bout with home hope Starace a round later, and he now will face a German who shares his preference for faster surfaces.  Like Cilic, Mayer profited from a key withdrawal in his section when 2010 Roland Garros semifinalist Melzer departed.  Also like Cilic, he relies upon heavy serve-forehand combinations that can penetrate any surface when effective but also can go astray without warning.  Not to be underestimated is a player who already has ambushed Youzhny, Almagro, Davydenko, and Del Potro this year.  Felled by dark horse Bellucci in Madrid, Murray hopes to avoid serving as a platform for a second straight arriviste.

Soderling vs. Djokovic:  The most intriguing of an otherwise plebeian quarterfinal menu, this duel will threaten the Serb’s streak more than any other match that he has played in the last month outside the Madrid final.  Soderling stands alone among the top five in escaping Djokovic’s wrath so far this year, and the Swede has developed an intimidating reputation for wrecking records on clay, including Nadal’s perfection at Roland Garros and Federer’s (probably permanently squelched) attempt to break the record for career weeks at #1.  A two-time finalist at Roland Garros, the fifth seed normally has not prospered  in Rome and famously won just a single game from Nadal here on the eve of the Greatest Upset Ever.  But he has responded to an exceptionally challenging draw with a steeliness absent from his recent slump, saving match points against Verdasco with sledgehammer forehands before grimly outlasting new top-10 resident Almagro.

In the tenth game of his victory over Wawrinka, meanwhile, Djokovic displayed the mental maturity vital to his barrage of titles.  Brushing aside a string of game points, the future #1 refused to let the Swiss #2 elude his grasp.  Instead, Djokovic subjected him to a relentless 36-shot rally that both players appeared to have won more than once; it led to a set point, smartly converted with a  drop shot that froze the weary Wawrinka.  Never the most durable competitor, Federer’s understudy wilted predictably in the second set, his spirit crushed by the close of the first.  A much firmer nut to crack, Soderling has a decent chance at breaking the Serb’s jaws if he can find lines with his mighty swings early in the rallies.  But the Djoker will have the last laugh if he can extend the rallies long enough to expose the Swede’s wooden movement.

Wozniacki vs. Jankovic:  Winless against the Serb in her first four attempts, the world #1 reversed that trend with a pair of straight-sets victories this season.  Falling in consecutive tournaments to the talented but untested Julia Goerges, Wozniacki enters Rome hopeful to bolster her candidacy for the Roland Garros crown.  Across the net stands a three-time Roland Garros semifinalist whose opportunity for capturing that elusive major have dwindled steadily since 2009.  But Jankovic still can count herself among the contenders in Paris this year, especially if she can collect a third title at the tournament kinder to her than any other.  After three successive bagels to start the week, Wozniacki flirted with danger by surrendering a second-set lead to Wickmayer, a fierce ball-striker not unlike Goerges who troubled her in Charleston.  Regrouping to quell that threat before a third set arrived, the Dane may prefer the challenge posed by a counterpuncher similar to herself.  In a match between two players of almost identical styles and strengths, form on the day almost invariably decides the outcome.  While Jankovic impressively avenged her Madrid loss to Safarova, a mid-match wobble against Medina Garrigues does not bode well for a player who defeated the Williams sisters consecutively here a year ago.  Can the apprentice conquer the sorceress for the third time in 2011, or will Wozniacki’s Paris aspirations suffer a blow from a different direction?

Maria Sharapova - The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2011 - Day Five

Azarenka vs. Sharapova:  Opposed in another sorceress-apprentice clash are the Miami finalists, armed with savage shrieks and equally savage returns of serve.  When they intersected in Key Biscayne, Sharapova and her descendant combined for only five service holds in seventeen total games.  This trend should continue in their first clay meeting after five fast-court tilts, although the Russian’s serve has proved unexpectedly imposing during her first two matches.  Broken only once by the solid Peer, Sharapova has lost a bare six games this week and eyes a third consecutive semifinal in the Italian capital, where she has played just once every three years.  Defying the grit beneath her feet, she has hammered her groundstrokes through the court with a vigor barely blunted by the clay.  On the other hand, Azarenka navigated through an erratic three-setter against Pavlyuchenkova, whom she defeated in the same round at Key Biscayne.  Among her former weaknesses was a struggle to finish matches convincingly, but she mastered her nerves impressively in the Miami final after the inevitable late Sharapova surge.  Somewhat similar to the Soderling-Djokovic match that accompanies it in the night session, this glamorous quarterfinal presents the question of whether the Russian can deliver a terminal blow with her superior weight of shot before the Belarussian outmaneuvers her with her superior movement and footwork.  Curiously, all of Azarenka’s wins in their rivalry have come in straight sets, while both of Sharapova’s victories have come in three.  No matter the scoreline, though, their matches provide compelling entertainment as much because of the pugnacious personalities as because of the crackling groundstrokes.

Arn vs. Li:  A 32-year-old Hungarian who won the Auckland title in January, Arn has put  many of her younger colleagues to shame while spending eight hours on court and winning third-set tiebreaks from both Kuznetsova and Vesnina.  This most improbable Cinderella probably will find her coach transformed into a pumpkin by the Australian Open runner-up, striking a rich vein of form at just the right moment.  As she approaches a second straight semifinal at a Premier Mandatory / Five event, dare we place “Li Na” and “consistency” in the same sentence?  Although her game still can veer wildly out of control on any given day, her ghastly post-Melbourne stretch seems finally to have abated.

Stosur vs. Schiavone:  Thrilling the Roman fans who will flock to the Foro Italico on Friday afternoon, this rematch of the Roland Garros final in fact pits two deeply slumping stars desperately in need of momentum before defending their Paris results.  A glance at their clay nemeses this season illustrates the situation, for Vesnina, Pavlyuchenkova, Radwanska, and Mattek-Sands scarcely rank among the leading threats on this surface.  With her top-10 status perhaps soon at stake, Stosur must quell not only her notorious nemesis but an enthusiastic Italian crowd that exhorted Schiavone throughout a suspenseful victory over Hantuchova.  At her best far from the madding crowd, the Australian struggles to match her nerve to the moment and succumbed to the Italian in the similarly fraught environment of Fed Cup.  Nevertheless, she has not experienced the extreme physical (and probably emotional) fatigue suffered by Schiavone after her Melbourne heroics.  Like its famous predecessor and unlike the other quarterfinals, this matinee encounter should feature classic clay-court tennis to delight adherents of tradition and of tennis played as much with the brain as with any other muscle.