Petra Kvitova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Eight

Azarenka vs. Kvitova:  Filled with percussive groundstrokes and fiercely aggressive shot selection, their Madrid clash developed into one of the most scintillating women’s finals on clay in recent years.  In her second straight Wimbledon semifinal, Kvitova can recall the most significant title of her career so far and the manner in which she achieved it, thumping nearly 50 winners in two sets.  Just as vital to the outcome of that tightly contested encounter, the Czech lefty’s serve lifted her on crucial points to deny Azarenka most of her opportunities to break.  In the contrast between their second serves lies the Czech’s most substantial advantage, for Azarenka offers returners a vulnerable target with that shot.  Therefore, first-serve percentage will play a critical role in the Belarussian’s fate, whereas Kvitova must guard against the mental lapses that still can descend upon her.  Outside such a lull in her victory over Pironkova, Kvitova has dominated her opponents on both serve and return throughout this fortnight, but she has not encountered an opponent who can match her baseline power.  Her signature curling cross-court forehand plays into the teeth of Vika’s most notable weapon, the backhand, leading to rallies that pit strength against strength or weakness against weakness.  In this context, each player will force her opponent to identify the most opportune moment for redirecting the ball down the line.

Although the fourth seed had not reached a Slam semifinal before Tuesday’s victory over Paszek, she probably has accumulated greater experience against elite opponents at significant tournaments.  But she cannot permit Kvitova to dictate the rallies as comprehensively as she did in Madrid, though, and thus must deliver her first strike (whether serve or return) with particularly stinging vigor.  The semifinalist who unleashes her groundstrokes with the greatest margin, Vika also has proven herself the most averse to risk among this notably risk-embracing quartet and the most fragile under pressure.  Since fortune generally favors the braver woman on grass, Kvitova should fancy her chances of repeating her victory over Azarenka in Wimbledon 2010 and advancing to a maiden Slam final.  Most vulnerable in the early rounds of tournaments this season, she has won all three of her semifinals this year as her confidence mounts from one victory to the next.  Still only 20, she may yet surpass Wozniacki and Azarenka as the most complete competitor, physically and mentally, of her generation.

Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Eight

Sharapova vs. Lisicki:  Seven years ago, a towering blonde surged from the Birmingham title to claim the Venus Rosewater Dish without having reached a Slam semifinal before.  In 2011, that narrative verges on repeating itself after Lisicki’s Roland Garros agony modulated into ecstasy on the Wimbledon lawns, where she already has defeated two top-10 opponents with one of the most overpowering serves in the women’s game.  The protagonist in the earlier narrative, Sharapova has reached semifinals at consecutive majors for the first time since 2007 as her partnership with Thomas Hogstedt has injected her with fresh insights and momentum.  In order to halt Lisicki’s eleven-match winning streak, Maria must continue the timely serving that propelled her through victories over Peng and Cibulkova while surrendering only one break.  Aware of the power that her opponent projects on this surface with every stroke, the 2004 champion must fasten herself to the baseline while constantly searching for opportunities to step inside it.  Even if this tactic results in conceding additional aces, Sharapova should willingly trade them in exchange for more penetrating replies when she does make contact.   Just as assertive court positioning will prove essential for the Russian, the German must balance velocity  with consistency in her first serves.  When Sharapova routed her in Miami this spring, a flagging first-serve percentage exposed her relatively modest second delivery to one of the WTA’s most savage returners.  No sharper in movement or instincts than her opponent, Lisicki similarly must dictate from the outset rather than scrambling to recover.

Absent from the penultimate round of majors for three years, Sharapova’s Roland Garros semifinal exposed uncharacteristic nerves in a situation that had become unfamiliar.  The lessons from that recent defeat may assist her to prepare more effectively for this second opportunity, although she faces a distinctly different type of opponent.  As the oldest and by far the most accomplished semifinalist, Sharapova brings not only the memories of triumphs past but the expectations that spring from them, complicating her quest for triumphs to come.  Contesting her first major semifinal, by contrast, Lisicki can repeat clichés about “nothing to lose” with full honesty.  Moreover, she already forged an inspiring Centre Court memory of her own this fortnight by saving match points against Li Na on the sport’s most fabled arena.  Threatened by severe, career-threatening injuries in recent years, both semifinalists have captured respect from audiences for their fortitude in adversity.  After their labyrinthine journeys from convalescence to contention, they now gain greater satisfaction than ever from their accomplishments, knowing that the endless months of tenuous patience and tireless efforts have reaped rewards.