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

Nadal vs. Gasquet:  Troubled by similarly unexpected surges from Gulbis in Rome and Almagro in Madrid last year, Nadal might experience stiffer resistance than usual from a player whom he has dominated routinely.  The world #1 has won all eight of his meetings with Gasquet, but then Richard just snapped an eight-match  losing streak against Federer.  A round after defeating Federer on clay in Monte Carlo six years ago, the Frenchman flustered Nadal for a set before his Gallic panache succumbed to Mallorcan resilience.  Starting with that 2005 encounter, Gasquet has lost his last seven sets against the Spaniard on clay, including an entertaining but hardly suspenseful meeting in Monte Carlo last month.  Nevertheless, the Frenchman deserves credit for extending his momentum from toppling Federer to rallying from a one-set deficit against Berdych, who had overpowered him in recent meetings.  The Bellucci of Rome, this chronic underachiever has scored consecutive victories over top-10 opponents twice this year in a revival that will bring his ranking inside the top 15.  Nearly stumbling out of the Foro Italico in his opener, meanwhile, a feverish Nadal found just enough energy to survive that day and has elevated his form with each successive match.  Eyeing the last obstacle before a probable fourth Masters 1000 final with Djokovic this year, Rafa will hope to conserve his strength for a titanic Sunday clash, as he could not do in a three-set Madrid semifinal against Federer.  Moreover, a comprehensive victory over the week’s most notable headline would silence the murmurs of his fallibility that might infuse the Serb with even more confidence.

Murray vs. Djokovic:  When the Scot last faced the Serb, they vied with equal plausibility for the leading position among the challengers of Nadal and Federer.  Less than four months later, Djokovic not only has vaulted far past Murray but arguably has transcended the top two as well, boasting a record as impeccable as when they met in the Australian Open final.  On that occasion, the two-time major champion outhit, outmaneuvered, and outthought the three-time major finalist in every department of the game, while their only clay meeting tilted decisively in his favor.  As Murray wobbled through three-setters against Malisse and Mayer, Djokovic surrendered just five games to Wawrinka and three to Soderling in dismissive displays built upon effortless transitions between defense and offense.  While the world #5 once held advantages over him fitness and consistency, the Serb largely has erased his frailties in those areas.  Perhaps even more impressive than his physical durability is his unflagging motivation as title after title tumbles into his possession.  Against a player of Murray’s quality, that motivation should continue to sharpen Djokovic’s focus.

Hoping to rehabilitate his legitimacy as a contender after a horrific hard-court spring, the Scot will have surpassed his expectations already by reaching two semifinals in the three clay Masters 1000 tournaments.  Less comfortable on this surface than the Serb, he still displayed an encouraging readiness this week to open up the court with his forehand and to redirect the ball from that wing as well as from his more potent backhand.  Murray also can take confidence from his three-match winning streak against Djokovic at Masters 1000 tournaments, including a pair of finals, and he will realize that the pressure rests squarely on his opponent’s shoulders.  But, in order for him to threaten the Serb, he must maintain a higher first-serve percentage and capitalize upon any early chinks in the second seed’s armor.  Slightly edgy to start against Wawrinka and Soderling, Djokovic settled into a lethal rhythm when his opponents spurned their first-set opportunities.  Murray must deny him that initial respite if he aims to avoid a debacle similar to the Melbourne final.

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

Wozniacki vs. Sharapova:  Much like Murray, the Siberian siren seeks to erase the memories of a deflating loss earlier this year to her semifinal opponent on Saturday.  After two victories over Wozniacki in 2008, including one at the Foro Italico, Sharapova ceded control of this fledgling rivalry last summer at the US Open and then mustered just three games from the Dane at Indian Wells this March.  Opening that semifinal in sprightly fashion, the Russian brought intelligent tactics to the match but fell far short of executing them with any consistency.  Groundstroke firepower alone cannot overcome the world #1, so Sharapova again must enter with a plan and adhere to it with conviction.  Among the strategies that she might consider is hitting behind Wozniacki, forcing her to reverse direction and undermining her superb anticipation, or dragging her into the forecourt under awkward circumstances.  Fortunate to escape Azarenka so swiftly (or perhaps at all), Sharapova located her groundstrokes imaginatively and judiciously throughout a fiercely contested first set.  Despite losing that set, the three-time major champion proved that she can compete with the WTA’s best even on her least effective surface.

On the other hand, Wozniacki delivered a compelling statement of intent with her victory over two-time Rome champion Jankovic, admittedly past her prime but still a threat on clay.  More composed than many of her elders in the WTA, the world #1 weathered a bizarre eight-break sequence to capture the pivotal points late in a third set that featured just one service hold.  Goerges hammered her off the court twice in one week, but the faster surfaces at the indoor Porsche Arena and on the Madrid plateau facilitated offense much more than the Roman dirt.  Unless Sharapova can sally inside the baseline regularly, the Dane can rely upon her heavy, high-bouncing retrievals to restart rallies.  Whereas the Russian may have one eye on Paris already, Wozniacki approaches each tournament with the same, often underestimated level of desire.  Hampering her at the majors, that attitude has contributed to her success at the upper tier of WTA events while endearing her to fans from New Haven to Brussels, where she travels next week.  Will the Dane tarry in the Eternal City a day longer, or will Sharapova schedule an early departure for her?

Li vs. Stosur:  Our New Year’s choice to win in Paris, the Aussie should have acquired considerable confidence from avenging her loss in last year’s final with an emphatic quarterfinal victory.  Facing only one break point throughout her revenge, Stosur also dulled the pain of a three-set Fed Cup loss to her Paris tormentor.  The fifth seed would experience no such cathartic pleasure from overcoming the Chinese #1, whom she defeated en route to the Stuttgart final last year.  Alone among the four women’s semifinalists, Stosur would consider clay her favorite surface and thus enters their contest a slight favorite against a player who also contests her second semifinal of the European spring.  Thoroughly thrashed by eventual champion Kvitova in the same round at the Caja Magica, Li nevertheless has asserted herself among the ever-broadening circle (galaxy?) of WTA contenders for the Roland Garros crown.  In order to surpass her Madrid result, the world #6 must strike her return as early as possible while peppering Stosur’s backhand with her own far more imposing two-hander.  Both of the mightiest weapons in this semifinal belong to the Australian, who depends upon her serve and forehand to stifle opponents before they can maneuver into a rally.  Yet the defending Roland Garros finalist has few alternatives when either of those shots misfire, as has happened chronically in 2011.  This semifinal thus pits the Australian’s jagged assemblage of thunderous weapons and glaring weaknesses against the Chinese star’s smooth, versatile repertoire.