Samantha Stosur - Rogers Masters presented by National Bank - Day 4

Stosur vs. Radwanska:  Seeking her tenth straight victory, the deceptively unprepossessing Pole already has defeated consecutive top-10 opponents in Zvonareva and Petkovic.  A champion in San Diego, Radwanska surprisingly won her only hard-court meeting Stosur, whose far superior serve should allow her to assert early control over their exchanges.  In her four wins so far this week, the slumping Australian conquered a series of versatile opponents from the counterpunching of Morita to the shot-making of Li Na to the craftiness of Vinci.  After she rallied from a one-set deficit in her opener, Stosur has not lost her serve in her last seven sets this week while saving 11 break points.  One senses that the loss of her lofty status may have allowed her to relax and focus on fundamentals by removing the spotlight that appeared to unhinge her over the past year.

Against an opponent who has registered 33 consecutive holds, Radwanska will shoulder the weighty burden of protecting a delivery that rarely reaches triple digits in speed and has decelerated further following a shoulder injury last week.  Facing 18 break points in two sets against Zvonareva, the Pole relied on her return game in a 13-break encounter.  The prospect of matching Stosur hold for hold seems a daunting task indeed under those circumstances, although the balance of power will tip in her favor should she survive the Australian’s potent first strike.  In neutral rallies, she can vary her shot selection, target her opponent’s erratic two-handed backhand, and expose her clumsy footwork.  Despite striking few winners, she has developed a knack for placing her shots in unexpectedly awkward locations.  With many more arrows in her quiver, Radwanska will hope that her all-court prowess can disrupt Stosur’s programmatic point construction and unsettle her mind.

Azarenka vs. Serena:  Between two Australian Opens in 2009 and 2010, these ferocious combatants engaged in four noteworthy battles.  In Act I, Azarenka kept the greatest player of her generation pinned behind the baseline for a set before the heat caused her retirement.  Trading lopsided victories in Acts II and III, the brazen Belarussian devoured an injured Serena at Miami and then succumbed to an overpowering assault by the four-time Wimbledon champion at the All England Club.  Most intriguing of all, though, was Act IV at the following year’s Australian Open, when Azarenka thrust the former #1 to the brink of the precipice—a situation in which she often has thrived.  Once again, Serena roared back from 4-6, 0-4, deuce to claim the critical second-set tiebreak and sweep through a commanding third set.  This Rogers Cup semifinal, the third of Azarenka’s career, represents the sequel to that memorable rollercoaster of court-stretching rallies and furiously flourished fists.

Conceding just six games in six sets this week, the fourth seed has become the only member of the WTA top 10 to reach the semifinals.  Gifted with an especially accommodating draw, Vika has encountered less intense opposition than Serena, forced to rally from one-set deficits on consecutive nights against Zheng and Safarova.  Not quite the invincible force of nature that she seemed at Stanford, the 13-time Slam champion has endured a few more precarious service games in Toronto as well as more frequent stretches of errors caused by lingering rust.  Two weeks ago, she perceptibly sharpened her focus when elite competition barred her path, however, pinpointing the lines with greater precision and arranging her feet more meticulously.  Just a month removed from her first Wimbledon semifinal, Azarenka has enjoyed the most impressive season of her career thus far, so Serena cannot escape a tentative, diffident, or uneven performance.  The American has shown her trademark appetite for competition, augmented by her enforced absence, but one wonders whether her prolonged encounters from the past two days will have exacted a physical toll.

Mardy Fish Mardy Fish celebrates match point against Ernests Gulbis of Latvia during the Rogers Cup at Uniprix Stadium on August 11, 2011 in Montreal, Canada.

Fish vs. Tipsarevic:  Overshadowed by the evening semifinal, this battle of contrasting personalities will supply a first-time finalist for the Rogers Cup.  Yet Fish has reached three finals at Masters 1000 tournaments in North America before, whereas Tipsarevic contests the first Masters 1000 semifinal of his career.  Lately, the Serb has gained almost as much notoriety for his off-court adulation of his countryman Djokovic as for his on-court achievements, although he has reached finals at the minor events in Delray Beach and Eastbourne.  Earning his third consecutive victory over Berdych, Tipsarevic burnished his reputation as a perpetual thorn in the side of more notable foes.  In consecutive three-set victories over Gulbis and Wawrinka, Fish displayed occasional frailty on serve before escalating his intensity towards the conclusion of those matches.  Broken five times in the first two sets by the Swiss #2, he will want to find the rhythm on his serve sooner against an opponent more alert to punish a mediocre performance.

On the other hand, the top-ranked American navigated a route to victory despite the unreliability of his mightiest weapon, suggesting his ability to seek alternate options and improvise during a match.  Following an Atlanta title and a Los Angeles final, a final at this much more prestigious tournament would heighten Fish’s self-belief before his home major.  Still deferential towards Roddick’s greater accomplishments, this unassuming competitor will attempt to defuse the flamboyant, bespectacled eccentric who rarely has lacked in confidence.  Will substance conquer style, or can Tipsarevic translate his swagger into an intimidating display of courage that unsettles the understated favorite?

Djokovic vs. Tsonga:  In the absence of his two principal rivals, the world #1 gazes down from the mountaintop upon the penultimate obstacle to a fifth consecutive Masters 1000 crown.  For the second straight tournament, Djokovic faces the dangerous Tsonga two days after the Frenchman ambushed Federer.  Carrying that momentum into a dominant performance against Almagro, the Wimbledon semifinalist never lost his serve  during the quarterfinal and suffered none of the concentration lapses that have undermined his consistency.  Best known for his serve, forehand, and net acrobatics, Tsonga has struck his backhand with authority this week.  That shot’s steadiness will prove crucial when he confronts the finest backhand in the ATP, for Djokovic surely will hammer his own two-hander cross-court into the Frenchman’s weaker wing.  Curiously, Tsonga has won four of their five previous meetings at non-majors, but those triumphs sprang in part from the Serb’s meandering malaise of late 2008-early 2010.  Depleted in confidence and uncertain on serve during that stage, Djokovic struggled to match the Frenchman hold for hold—no longer a disadvantage for him in their rivalry.

After a wobbly start to the second half, the new #1 has elevated his level with each successive performance as a talented trio of adversaries (Davydenko, Cilic, Monfils) threatened him initially before wilting under the relentlessness of his baseline barrage.  Towards the end of his quarterfinal, Djokovic turned the world #7 into a quasi-hitting partner much in the manner that Federer embarrassed his most prominent rivals at his zenith.  Tsonga’s superior serve and greater commitment to aggression should result in a more competitive encounter, however, similar to their four-set Wimbledon semifinal.  On that occasion, the Frenchman nearly snatched the first set before an untimely brain cramp.  Against an opponent as physically and mentally impenetrable as Djokovic, any such stumble would prove fatal.  Nobody other than Nadal or Federer has won so much as a set from the Serb at a hard-court Masters 1000 tournament this year.