Victoria Azarenka - 2011 French Open - Day Seven

Li vs. Azarenka:  In her fourth Slam quarterfinal and second at Roland Garros, Azarenka eyes revenge against the player who halted her in Melbourne.  Since the fourth and sixth seeds possess markedly similar styles, the outcome of this baseline battle should hinge upon execution rather than strategy.  Striking their groundstrokes with relentless depth, both women own balanced assaults with slightly more reliable backhands than forehands but the ability to dictate play from either wing.  Gifted with a somewhat superior serve, Li faces an indifferent server and outstanding returner in Azarenka, so this quarterfinal should feature a host of breaks and closely contested service games like their Australian meeting.  The Chinese superstar has won three of their four previous encounters, demonstrating a firmer resilience that perhaps springs from her experience.  At this tournament, however, Azarenka has conceded no more than six games in each of her first four matches, while Li has found herself thrust into a pair of three-setters.  But the fourth seed has not faced resistance as stiff as the challenge posed by Kvitova, against whom the Chinese rebounded from a demoralizing first set and reversed her defeat to the Czech in Madrid.  Having conquered that recent bête noire, the Melbourne finalist may have gained the momentum necessary to expose any chinks in Azarenka’s armor, which have looked few indeed lately.  If she can pass this test of her confidence and maturity, the Belarussian will have taken a substantial step towards proving her ability to endure the pressures of a fortnight at a major.

Nadal vs. Soderling:  Threatening to become a Roland Garros tradition is the mid-tournament meeting between the feral Swede and the defending champion.  As he stalks into this third meeting with Nadal here in three years, Soderling will have scented an uncharacteristic degree of frailty from the Spaniard that should whet his appetite.  Both players have won their last 11 sets after first-round drama, although the defending champion has not performed as close to his finest level as has his challenger.  More willing to step inside the baseline in the fourth round against Ljubicic, though, Nadal displayed glimmers of escaping from the mental malaise into which consecutive clay defeats to Djokovic seemingly had cast him.  And few champions rise to the occasion as brilliantly as the Spaniard, fully aware of the danger posed by his opponent and likely to focus ever more keenly as a result.  After that memorable upset two French Opens ago, in fact, Nadal slowly regained his dominance over Soderling with two Slam victories last year during which he lost only one total set.  Nevertheless, the seemingly bulletproof Spaniard who stifled the Swede in the 2010 Roland Garros final scarcely resembles the uncertain, weary competitor who has struggled to consolidate service breaks over the past week.  Normally an outstanding front-runner, Nadal stands at a crossroads.  If Soderling charges to a second upset in three years, Rafa’s competitive vitality might ebb further at a crucial moment in the season.  If the defending champion can rekindle his familiar passion with an inspired, vintage triumph over a former nemesis, another spectacular summer still might lie ahead.

Maria Sharapova - 2011 French Open - Day Nine

Sharapova vs. Petkovic:   A tribute as much to her perseverance as to her power, Maria’s fifth quarterfinal appearance at Roland Garros pits her against her Australian Open nemesis.  Resembling a rollercoaster are the three previous collisions in their mini-rivalry, which began when Sharapova savaged the German’s serve in Cincinnati last year.  After Petkovic retaliated with an almost equally emphatic triumph in Melbourne, the Russian reeled off 11 straight games during their Miami semifinal.  Operating in a mode closer to digital than analog, the components of their games either click into breathtaking engines of offense or fragment into scattered shards.  Able to escape from erratic beginnings to two of her previous matches, Sharapova cannot rely on hammering her way out of a similar predicament this time.  Whereas Garcia had the weapons and lacked the mind to seal the upset, Radwanska had the mind and lacked the weapons, but Petkovic likely has both.  The three-time major champion thus must sharpen her precision from the outset while continuing the timely serving with which she frustrated the Pole.  Comparably convinced that the best defense consists of a potent offense, this pair should essentially impose their hard-court styles on the reluctant clay and contest rallies much shorter than those in the other semifinal.  Perhaps separating this encounter from the Melbourne meeting is Sharapova’s elevated confidence from capturing the prestigious Rome title.  But Petkovic also enters their quarterfinal with a nine-match winning streak after collecting the smaller Strasbourg event.  Shifted outside Chatrier for the first time in the tournament, Sharapova returns to the scene of her most memorable battles at this major:  her 2007 victory over Schnyder after saving two match points, her 2008 loss to Safina after holding a match point, and her stirring 2009 comeback against Petrova in just her fifth singles match after shoulder surgery.  Will Suzanne Lenglen witness another dramatic chapter in Maria’s quest for the only major that stubbornly resists her allure?

Murray vs. Chela:  Deterred by neither a sprained ankle against Berrer or a two-set deficit against Troicki, the fourth seed seeks his first semifinal at his least successful major.  Recognizing the opportunity presented by a second-week encounter with Chela, the Scot gallantly overcame the physical and psychological burdens posed by a two-day battle with the second Serb.  Few observers outside Argentina would have favored the orthodontically challenged veteran to reach this stage, which will have boosted his ranking into relevance.  If Murray’s ailing joint continues to trouble him, Chela might well duplicate Melzer’s almost equally startling route to the final four last year.  Not the counterpunching Scot renowned for his movement more than his shot-making, the fourth seed has demonstrated his latent offensive talents in his last two victories.  Thus, Chela may recoil in initial surprise from an opponent who boldly targets the lines with his groundstrokes and glides (or rather hobbles) towards the net when the opportunity emerges.  Confronting the Argentine is the dilemma of whether to craft his tactics around Murray’s much-publicized injury.  To that end, Troicki cleverly hit behind the Scot while compiling his vast advantage, testing the ankle’s mobility as its owner reversed direction on these slippery courts.  If not a facet of Chela’s regular repertoire, however, these gambits could distract him and lure him away from a straightforward, steady clay-court style that might prove sufficient if Murray’s improvised offense starts to unravel.

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